Shabazz Palaces were the first hip-hop group to sign for renowned indie rock label Sub Pop, their debut album, Black Up (2011), was regarded by many as one of the best albums of the last decade. Ishmael Butler, once of Digable Planets is one half of this impressive duo. The Don of Diamond Dreams is their fifth album. It features contributions from Purple Tape Nate, Stas THEE Boss, Darrius Willrich, OCnotes and Carlos Overall.
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The gap between Digable Planets’ final album ‘Blowout Comb’ in 1995 and Shabazz Palaces’ 2011 debut was mammoth, both in terms of a musical divergence and as a hiatus. Sure, it played on the jazz rap and Afrocentric themes showcased in the cult hip hop group’s music, but it took the sound and transported it into the 21st century and beyond. ‘Black Up’ consciously steered away from boom bap throwbacks and sought to find something new, something futuristic, hip hop which didn’t pander to any trends. Death Grips, Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar came to fame at around the same time, similar artists with a singular approach who continue to push boundaries and make quality records. The question with ‘The Don of Diamond Dreams’ is, are Shabazz Palaces pushing boundaries the same way their peers are? Well no, not really. They do as they please in an almost freeform manner, creating an enjoyable album with their characteristic sound with a few modern flourishes in to boot.
Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler is in his early 50s but is no stranger to contemporary hip hop sounds. His son Lil Tracy was a collaborator with the late Lil Peep, and there’s even a recall of Lil B’s trademark ‘Based God!’ adlibs here on ‘Wet’. ‘Fast Learner’ marries their typical space age rap with emo rap autotune, and ‘Money Yoga’ blends shuffling trap hi-hats with a currency hungry hook and autotune croons. The primary influences of the project are still on show, for example ‘Bad Bitch Walking’ revels in the irresistible squelchy sci-fi of Parliament/Funkadelic, whilst ‘Thanking The Girls’ sports earthquake inducing bass.
‘The Don of Diamond Dreams’ shows off everything that many flocked to Shabazz Palaces for: the deep sub-bass, the cryptic Afrofuturistic themes which played off Sun Ra and Parliament, and the relaxed, intoxicating prose of Ish. They add a few more modern flourishes to keep things from sounding like previous outings, and there are some incredible tracks here with an overarching atmosphere that can only compel. Just don’t expect to be humming any of these songs on your day to day as there’s little sense of pop sensibility here.
In light of the two album-length 'Quazarz' missteps Shabazz Palaces made in 2017, ‘The Don Of Diamond Dreams’ represents something like a course-correction for the Ishmael Butler-led project. While the clarity and execution of vision that set Shabazz Palaces apart in the early days remains a little out of reach here, this is certainly the best iteration of Butler’s spiritualised fonk-hop sound that we’ve heard for a few years.
Now the other side of fifty, Butler’s Palaceer persona adopts the role of discerning but ultimately benevolent guru figure here, pulling up new-gen MCs while pushing them to do more, think more, say more, be more. On ‘Wet’ he refers to himself as a ‘vet’ who is ‘unimpressed’ with young rappers, while on ‘Chocolate Souffle’ he astral plains his opponent by proclaiming ‘my style’s your style’s ether’. One wonders if this desire to guide stems, in part, from the fact that his son is now the successful emo-rapper Lil Tracy.
Let’s talk about ‘Chocolate Souffle’, easily the highlight of the album’s first half. This is where ‘The Don Of Diamond Dreams’ really gets going, the beat snapping and travelling at the same time. Coming right after ‘Wet’, with its wry look down at younger rappers and an outro in which a funk bass imitates that sort of ultra-distorted-vocoder thing Kanye West does, Butler’s equally-Yeezyish proclamation ‘this is high art!’ takes on an air of hyperreal cynicism. It’s almost as if he’s gazing with a smirk upon the rap landscape from out in the cosmos, his eyes red but his mind moving. From here, a line such as ‘live life like a velvet cupcake’ both provides a slice of pure comedy - Butler’s sense of humour is in good nick across ‘The Don Of Diamond Dreams’ - and also a typically piquant musing on African-American identity from Butler.
Some of the Quazarz failings persist. The raised-eyebrow Ye-isms can be a little too on-the-nose at times - the noodling refrain of ‘all I think about is money’ on ‘Money Yoga’ being a prime example. Also, some of the mixes here are just bafflingly muddied, particularly when it comes to Butler’s vocals. When his lyrical pronouncements are generally delivered with the lackadaisical air of someone who’s just hit a particularly chunky L, the choice to muddle them with effects of bury them in some already muffled mixes can be genuinely annoying.
There is also a sense of drift towards the end of the album, though I don’t dislike this. I mean, for an artist of such potent talent, it does feel like a bit of a cop-out to end your record with a seven-minute sigh like ‘Reg Walks By The Looking Glass’, but given that he’s put in the aesthetic work over the previous tracks I’ll defer to Butler here - even when he’s obfuscating, you always know there’s something in there for you to parse.
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